The Apostolic Fathers: A (Very) Rough Introduction

I recently picked up a copy of the Penguin classics publication Early Christian Writings. The short book is a collection of a few books/letters of the so-called ‘Apostolic Fathers’, that is, those leaders of the church believed to have been taught by the apostles themselves. The collection contains The Didache (a treatise concerning Christian living, church practice, and corporate worship generally dated to the first century), the only letter undoubtedly attributed to Clement, the second or third Bishop of Rome (traditionally said to have been consecrated to the bishopric by Peter himself), the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (traditionally identified as a disciple of John the Evangelist), the martyrdom of Polycarp (another disciple of John, and early martyr) and his letter to the Philippians, as well as the Epistle of Barnabas (written sometime between AD 70 and 132, possibly written by Barnabas mentioned in Scripture, possibly a different Barnabas, maybe by someone of a totally different name altogether).

The book is fascinating reading, and I would recommend it unreservedly to any Christian. Any book that can credibly be attributed to someone who learned directly from the apostles is worthwhile reading. It is, however, a period of church history infrequently appealed to by my fellow evangelical Protestants. I can’t think of any good reason that this would be the case, though there are obvious cultural and historical reasons why we tend not to rush to the very early fathers of the church.

Perhaps one reason though is that we are a little afraid of what we might find in them. Perhaps we expect theology that is obscure, or church practices that are uncomfortably different to ours. Well, in part at least, we would find those things. But to read church history and historical theology in order to simply confirm the way we think now is not to read the fathers, it is to use them. If historical figures of the church never say anything that would contradict (or correct?) us, it could be because we’re perfect, but it could be because we’ve modified them to fit our own agenda.

Of course, these writings aren’t Scripture. They aren’t binding on our faith or practice in the same way as the writings of the apostles John or Paul. It would be profoundly odd, however, for evangelicals who want to understand how the apostles were heard and understood by their earliest hearers to ignore what they say. So here are a few choice quotes and a few comments to introduce you to some key points of interest (to me at any rate) in the apostolic fathers.

‘On all [the priests of the tribe of Levi and the kings of the tribes of Judah] great honour and renown were bestowed; yet not for their own sakes, or because of their own achievements, or for the good works they did, but by the will of God. Similarly we also, who by His will have been called in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves or our own wisdom or understanding or godliness, nor by such deeds as we have done in holiness of heart, but by that faith through which alone Almighty God has justified all men since the beginning of time. Glory be to Him for ever and ever, amen.’ — First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, 32.

Anyone who thinks that sola fide was concocted by a shady band of renegade theological innovators in the sixteenth century ought to consider this quote from the second or third Pope. Most significantly, Clement does not simply say that we are not justified by works in general, he even stresses that we are not justified by the good works done in Christ. Even those deeds we have done in holiness of heart do not contribute towards our justification. It is a gift of grace received by faith in its entirety, a righteousness from faith from first to last.

Bishops & Clergy
‘Now, since Jesus Christ has given such glory to you, it is only right that you should give glory to Him; and this, if sanctification is to be yours in full measure, means uniting in a common act of submission and acknowledging the authority of your bishop and clergy.’ — Ignatius to the Ephesians, 2.

‘What it comes to is that we ought not just to have the name of Christians, but to be so in reality; not like some persons who will address a man as bishop, but in practice take no notice of him. I do not see how people of that kind can be acting in good conscience, seeing that the meetings they hold can have no sort of valid authority.’ — Ignatius to the Magnesians, 4.

‘Your obedience to your bishop, as though he were Jesus Christ, shows me plainly enough that yours is no worldly manner of life, but that of Jesus Christ Himself, who gave His life for us that faith in His death might save you from death. At the same time, however, essential as it is that you should never act independently of the bishop — as evidently you do not — you must also be no less submissive to your clergy, and regard them as apostles of Jesus Christ our hope.’ — Ignatius to the Trallians, 2.

One area in which the apostolic fathers sound very strange to modern Protestant ears is their (especially Ignatius’s) concern with loyalty to bishops and church leaders. A few things may be noted:

Firstly, a threefold office of bishop, presbyter, and deacon appears to have been present in the church from the earliest days. The bishop was the overall spiritual leader of the church in the city/region, assisted in spiritual matters by presbyters/clergy, and practically in services by deacons. In some epistles only bishops and deacons are mentioned. This seems to me to be consonant with a reading of the New Testament that would view Titus as an early bishop of Crete, appointing presbyters in the various towns of the island, but retaining overall responsibility and authority.

Secondly, the office, in some sense, represents the church. All three of the above quotes are exceptionally strongly worded. Ignatius seems to think that it is the bishop that gives legitimacy to the gatherings of the churches, and that actions taken without the bishop cannot be done in good conscience. As to whether this view absolutely requires either apostolic succession or even episcopal government, I remain somewhat agnostic. I am myself a born-again Anglican, and therefore an episcopalian, but am of the disposition to think that in many churches there is more of a threefold ministry in practice than there is on the website, with a senior pastor essentially functioning as a bishop, with elders/presbyters and deacons (perhaps the episcopalian substance is present under the presbyterian/congregational accidents). This still leaves open the question of whether many congregations have that high a view of their senior pastor.

Thirdly, and following from the above, Ignatius suggests that the way we treat bishops and clergy is a reflection of the way in which we treat God. This is entirely consonant with other Biblical themes — if one says we ought to obey state authority, since it is instituted by God, and so to rebel against that authority is to rebel against God (Romans 13), then surely it is even more true of the authority in the church. I’m a big believer that much of how we think about God is mediated through the church, through other believers. After all, John can say in his epistles that if we don’t love the brothers and sisters of the church, then we don’t love God. If we refuse to admit our sins to our siblings, it is possible that we haven’t really confessed them to God either. It is far too easy to construct our own God in our head, and then obey his commands (which are suspiciously similar to our own standards of living), and enjoy his forgiveness (which is remarkably easy to come by without personal cost). By having an earthly authority outside ourselves, God has given us a gift: he has made it far harder to deceive ourselves. If I submit to my church leaders, I know that I cannot be my own authority. The gift of the spirit has given us a priesthood of all believers, but not an episcopacy of all believers. ‘No man is a diocese entire of itself’, or something like that.

Fourthly (though again, following from the above), this investing of people with authority means that we must interpret Scripture with one another, and in conversation with the whole church. God has not allowed all of us to just have a Bible and to do whatever we happen to think the Bible says. That way lies everyone doing whatever is right in their own eyes and finding whatever proof-texts or creating whatever quirky exegetical frameworks they can to justify their novel readings.

There are remaining questions on this issue in my mind, however. These instructions were written to churches where congregants had comparatively little access to the written Scriptures. That creates more of a need for an authoritative teacher in the church. There is also the question of legitimacy and heresy — from the earliest days the apostles knew that wolves would enter the flock in sheep’s clothing. How do we relate to bad bishops without emptying the office of its authority, and without merely justifying our own unwillingness to submit? Answers on a postcard please.

Clerical Celibacy & Scandal
‘My heart is sore for Valens, sometime one of your clergy, that he should have so little understanding of his office that was conferred on him. It moves me to warn you earnestly against any excessive fondness for money, and to insist upon your absolute probity and integrity… I feel the deepest sorrow for that man and his wife; may the Lord grant them real repentance.’ — The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, 11.

Contra current Roman Catholic practice, presbyters/priests were clearly permitted to be married in the early days of the church. In fact, clerical celibacy only became a requirement in the Roman Catholic church in the 11th Century (though married men are still ordained as priests in the Eastern Catholic churches). It also seems that the megachurch pastor with a private jet and the medieval bishop in his palace were not the first clergymen to fall into the snare of the love of money. Surprise, surprise.

‘Make certain, therefore, that you all observe one common Eucharist, for there is but one Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with His blood, and one single altar of sacrifice — even as also there is but one bishop, with his clergy and my own fellow-servitors the deacons.’ — Ignatius to the Philadelphians, 4.

‘I am fain for the bread of God, even the flesh of Jesus Christ, who is the seed of David; and for drink I crave that Blood of His which is love imperishable.’ — Ignatius to the Romans, 7.

‘They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness afterwards raised up again.’ — Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, 7.

‘In The Didache too the form of the Eucharist seems to have been an actual meal: the cup and the bread are blessed and then, when the meal is finished, there are prayers of thanksgiving.’ — Introduction to The Didache, Andrew Louth

‘At the Eucharist, offer the eucharistic prayer in this way. Begin with the chalice: “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the holy Vine of thy servant David, which thou hast made known to us through they servant Jesus” […] No one is to eat or drink of the Eucharist but those who have been baptised in the Name of the Lord […] Whosoever is holy, let him approach, whoso is not, let him repent. Maranatha, Amen.’ — Excerpts from The Didache, 9-10.

It is curious that the Eucharist, which does not occupy a particularly prominent place in the writings of the New Testament, is so obviously of central importance in the next generation of writers. I would suggest that this is not due to the apostolic fathers getting overly excited and blowing it out of proportion, it seems more likely to me to be related to the occasion for each author’s writing. Paul gives his most extended thoughts on the Lord’s Supper when correcting abuses of it Corinth, and Ignatius follows suit by giving it particular attention when relating to specific pastoral issues. I personally would make the assumption that the Eucharist was a point of general agreement and good discipline in the apostolic days of the church, meaning that it only received attention when things had gone awry.

So what is its significance in the minds of the Apostolic Fathers? Ignatius seems convinced and emphatic in his letter to the Smyrnaeans that the Eucharist is the ‘self-same body of our Saviour’, or, in an alternate translation ‘the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour’. In his letter to the Romans, his longing seems to be for the Lord’s Supper. One could argue, if they were to take John 6 as being a text that uses very sacramental language, but which is not in fact about the Eucharist, that Ignatius is speaking in this same way, and merely referring to the spiritual feasting on Jesus’ body and blood. However, given the clearer statement to the Smyrnaeans, this seems unlikely. Indeed, it seems unlikely that the physical and the spiritual were so divided in his imagination. The spiritual feeding comes through the physical in Jesus’ real presence. (For the record, I don’t think this requires a belief in transubstantiation as it is currently articulated by the Roman Catholic Church, which I, for other reasons, reject. I do think it suggests that the earliest belief of the church, indeed, the belief of those who were directly taught by the apostles, was more than memorialist/Zwinglian.)

Beyond the question of the Real Presence, there is what the Eucharist symbolises and, through that symbolism, achieves. The sharing of a common meal is both the symbol of the church’s unity, and, through Christ’s presence in it, the means of accomplishing that unity. (This is the case in many meals. Consider Gretchen Wiener’s line in Mean Girls: ‘You can’t sit with us.’ She understands this dynamic: the symbolism of the common meal brings about the state of fellowship it represents.) And so Ignatius is eager that the Philadelphians maintain good order in it — the Lord’s Supper is not a private affair in which we individually remember Jesus’ work for us as individuals. It is an instrument of our church unity.

On the subject of its shared nature, it seems in The Didache, and the period of church history that The Didache represents, that there may have been two different kinds of Eucharist, one being a regularly occurring ‘breaking of bread’, a substantial fellowship meal intended as an anticipation of the Messianic banquet at Jesus’ return; and the other being a more infrequent (presumably annually, at Easter, though Louth’s introduction doesn’t answer/venture a guess) re-enacting of the Last Supper.

See the Epistle of Barnabas in its entirety.

The ‘rules’ of exegesis is a fairly contentious issue at the moment, as controversy around the ‘Theological Interpretation of Scripture’ movement (represented by books such as Craig Carter’s Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition) have demonstrated. The Epistle of Barnabas, whatever you make of its conclusions, is at least fairly representative of its era in how the task of exegesis was approached. For Barnabas, every mention of water in the Old Testament is a prefiguring of baptism, and every tree is a prefiguring of the cross. Is every example equally persuasive? No. But there is surely something in it. It is at least telling that the earliest interpreters of Scripture (which, we ought to remember, includes the apostles themselves, who explicitly employ typological readings of Scripture in Galatians and Hebrews) were working in a typological/allegorical framework. As Louth says in his introduction, ‘Barnabas may seem strange to modern ears: allegory is out of fashion and there is little else in the epistle. But the fashion that outlaws allegory is quite recent, and fashions change.’ We will have to see how the pendulum swings over the next generation of scholarship, Biblical commentary, and preaching.

For Barnabas, not only does the Old Testament take on a spiritual meaning after the coming of Jesus — the spiritual meaning was the true meaning all along. And so Barnabas is fairly scathing towards the interpretations of the Mosaic dietary laws that thought they were ever rules about what to eat and what not to eat. It’s not, Barnabas would argue, that they gained a new spiritual sense from which we may learn now — the laws were always to do with morality instead of meals. This approach quite neatly solves one problem: what should we do with the Mosaic law? Well, says Barnabas, search for the spiritual meaning, and you will see that Christians indeed do keep what Moses always intended the spirit of that law to be. I remain unpersuaded of this approach to the specifics of the Mosaic law — I think it jars with Paul’s approach to the law as a guardian until the new covenant, and his insistence that something has substantially changed between old covenant and new — but it is interesting, and nothing he advises on the basis of the interpretation would do you any harm.

Loving Jesus, and Loving His Church
‘Little do [the governors] know that it could never be possible for us to abandon the Christ who died for the salvation of every soul that is to be saved over all the world — the Sinless One dying for sinners — or to worship any other. It is to Him, as the Son of God, that we give our adoration; while to the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we give the love they have earned by their matchless devotion to their King and Teacher. Pray God we too may come to share their company and their discipleship.’ — The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 17.

‘Also, to what end have I given myself up to perish by fire or sword or savage beasts? Simply because when I am close to the sword I am close to God, and when I am surrounded by lions I am surrounded by God. But it is only in the name of Jesus Christ, and for the sake of sharing in His sufferings, that I could face all this; for He, the perfect Man, gives me strength to do so.’ — Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, 4.

‘And it is by that very way, dear friends, that we find our own salvation: even Jesus Christ, the High Priest by whom our gifts are offered, and the Protector by whom our feebleness is aided. Through Him we can look up to the highest heaven and see, as in a glass, the peerless perfection of the face of God. Through him the eyes of our hearts are opened, and our dim and clouded understanding unfolds like a flower to the light; for through Him the Lord permits us to tase the wisdom of eternity.’ — First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, 36.

Surely the great evangelical distinctive should be that deep personal love for the Lord Jesus. Of course, this is a distinctive of all those who are genuine Christians, but the ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ thing has always been something of an evangelical slogan, and if our desire is to know and love the Lord, and speak about him in a way that is fitting with that, then we will find very good company in the Apostolic Fathers. No letters are dry or rigid, each one is full of deep affection for God and His people, expressed in language that aims to give the Lord glory and assure other Christians of their love in words that are worthy, whether in beautiful and soaring grandeur, or in simple devotion and trust. If you gain nothing else from reading these men, you will find shining examples of devotion to our Lord from those who did not consider their lives precious to them, even unto death.

People will differ in how much weight to give to the writings of the Apostolic Fathers and the other writers of the early church. I’m by no means a new hardcore convert to paleo-orthodoxy, but if Christ established one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, then surely it isn’t just ideal, but imperative that we stay in dialogue with our brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers of the past, and that we approach their writings on their own terms and in their own words.

And one final quote from The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 21, that I loved, but that didn’t fit under any neat heading:
‘The official responsible for [Polycarp’s] arrest was Herod; the High Priest was Philip of Tralles; and the proconsul was Statius Quadratus — but the ruling monarch was Jesus Christ, who reigns forever and ever. To him be ascribed all glory, honour, majesty, and an eternal throne from generation to generation. Amen’

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